It’s hard to know what to make of Scotland’s performance in this, their first major tournament since the World Cup in France back in 1998. A draw in the opening fixture here at Hampden Park was always going to make it difficult, with England at Wembley and an in-form Croatia team to come, but promising moments in both those opening games were tempered by periods of play where it was clear that this limited side have done as well as could have been expected by simply being here in the first place.
On this occasion, there was no shame in the Scottish performance. They were simply outclassed by a team that are, whisper it, slowly staking a claim to be one of the favourites for the tournament.
Having outplayed England for so much of their opening match that they felt disappointed with the draw, followed by two comprehensive victories here in Glasgow, Croatia’s reward for winning the group is likely to be a game against either world champions France or a resurgent Germany. A tough prize, for sure, but on the evidence of what we’ve seen so far, this version of Croatia is potentially stronger than the team of 2018.
Scotland, on the other hand, appeared listless, perhaps drained from the emotional end to a galling defeat by England, and weakened by the absence of the suspended Kieran Tierney. Their reshuffled team seemed unconvinced that they could get anything out of the game and sneak through as one of the best third place teams from the group stage, and although their fans were in typically fine voice, there was little for them to cheer on the pitch until it was far too late.
It was a muggy night in Glasgow, the weather building over the course of the day with the anticipation of the two sets of fans who mingled in the bars and fan zones of this fine city throughout the afternoon and into the evening. The conditions might explain the pace of the game, which was sedate throughout. If Scotland were to get something out of the match, they surely needed to rattle Croatia, to go after them from the off, but with the exception of Robertson and McGinn, both ever-willing runners, the intensity was simply not there from the team playing on home turf.
With the pace low and the space afforded to him on the Hampden pitch generous, Luka Modrić was able to play the game to his strength, dictating events from deep while the highly mobile forward line in front of him pulled the mass ranks of Scottish defenders this way and that. It was a Modrić through ball that found Rakitić clear on the right, just after the half hour mark, by which point Croatia had already spurned a number of presentable chances. And Rakitić indeed looked to have missed another, as his shot thudded back off the base of the post. Unfortunately an unlucky rebound off Mulgrew gave the ball right back to the Barcelona player, and with the second attempt he made no mistake.
At this point in proceedings, an equaliser for Scotland might have been enough for them to squeak through due to the third placed teams across the tournament being mostly unable to rack up more than a couple of points, but Croatia were in no mood to let them off the hook. Rakitić had another good effort well saved by McGregor, while Rebić saw a couple of long range efforts go close. On the stroke of half time it was the captain who took charge, with Modrić playing a nice one-two with Perišić to open up the space on the edge of the area before curling a fine finish into the top corner.
Scotland sent on Scott McTominay for the second half, and he made a difference as the home side began to fashion some chances of their own. But they were all half-chances at best, as the experienced Croatia defence held them at arm’s length. Burke had the best of the opportunities from a rare Scotland corner, but well-marshalled by Lovren and Vida he was only able to direct his header over the bar.
A few minutes later Lovren showed him how it was done, meeting a Modrić free-kick with a thumping header that was beyond the goalkeeper before he had time to react. With the third goal even the most optimistic of Scottish fans seemed to accept the game was up, although if anything that seemed to be more of a release of tension than anything else, and the final twenty minutes of the game were played out in an increasingly party-like atmosphere that had little to do with what was happening on the pitch.
Still, the loudest cheer of the night was reserved for a Scotland consolation goal, scored by Oli McBurnie, who had come on for McGregor with ten minutes to play. A year ago the Sheffield United striker was under fire for his comments about playing for the national team, but there seemed no ill-will from the Hampden stands as he skipped past two challenges and rifled a shot beneath the onrushing Kalinić. It was the least that the Scotland fans deserved.
‘Not good enough,’ was Andy Robertson’s characteristically blunt assessment after the final whistle. ‘Not today, not against England, not against the Czechs.’ And with that, Scotland depart this tournament as the lowest-ranked third-placed team, even if Glasgow still has some hosting to do. As for Croatia, they wait to see tomorrow who their next challenge will be. But on the evidence so far, they will not fear anything Group F can throw at them.